To understand what a phonemic alphabet is, one must first understand what a phoneme is.
Now a phone is any sound, be it vowel or non-vowel (consonant, fricative etc., see APPENDIX 1). A phoneme is a phone (sound) with a linguistic significance in a particular language. Phonemes are specific to individual languages or sometimes to language families. Two phones (sounds) in a particular language may belong to different phonemes, or they may belong to the same phoneme, i.e. have the same “value” in that language. (You can also find basic definitions of phoneme here: https://literarydevices.net/phoneme/ ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoneme ; https://www.britannica.com/topic/phoneme .).
A very quick and foolproof test of a phoneme in a particular language is to substitute one phone (sound) for another in a word and see if it changes the meaning of the word; if it doesn’t, the two phones are (or “belong to”) the same phoneme (they are called allophones of the same phoneme). Phonemes are indicated by two slashes; e.g. the p-phoneme in English is indicated as /p/.
Let us cite some illustrative examples which will better explain what a phoneme is:
(1) In English, the “unvoiced” p sound and the “voiced” b sound are clearly different phonemes, witness the words pet and bet, which clearly have different meanings. However, in the Chinese languages (such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujienese and Shanghainese), these two sounds, p and b, have the same value; i.e. they are part of the same phoneme. Thus, whether one says pu or bu in Mandarin, it still means “no”; whether one says Peijing or Beijing, it still signifies the same city; the substitution does not change the meaning of the word. Thus, we say that in Mandarin, the p and b phones (sounds) are the same phoneme.
(2) In Hindi, we have the two phones p and ph (aspirated version of p). Now if one substitutes the p in the Hindi word pal (“a moment or instant of time”) with ph, one gets phal (“fruit”), which has obviously completely changed the meaning of the word. Therefore, in Hindi, the two phones p and ph are different, distinct phonemes, with different values. On the other hand, if one pronounces the p in the English word put with a slight aspiration (like a ph), as in its standard American and British pronunciation (as opposed to, say, the Indian or Irish pronunciation), or pronounces it without any aspiration (like plain p), as in Indian or Irish pronunciation, it is still understood as the same word, put; i.e. the meaning of the word is unchanged. So in English, p and ph are phones that belong to the same phoneme; i.e. in English, /p/ = p + ph. Or in general, in English, all unvoiced, aspirated (with breath, e.g. ph or kh) and unaspirated (e.g. p or k) phones belong to the same phoneme.
(3) In Hindi, one can pronounce the words van (“forest”) and vikas (“development”) with an initial w or v sound, and it doesn’t make any difference; thus, in Hindi, the w and v sounds belong to the same phoneme. However, in English, these sounds quite evidently belong to different phonemes, witness the words vent and went, which clearly have very different meanings.
(4) In Parisian French, substitution of the “uvular-r” (coming from deep in the throat, the most common pronunciation) by the “rolled-” or “trilled-“ r (“rrrrr”, coming from the tip of the tongue) in a word like rouler does not change the meaning of the word. Thus, these two sounds are the same phoneme in French, even though they are very different sounds.
NAVLIPI claims to be the only practical alphabet that conveys such phonemic information to the reader; this in spite of the fact that, really, any universal script must be able to clearly indicate such phonemic information to be truly universal. Thus, English or Hindi speakers, when reading words of Mandarin written in NAVLIPI script, will immediately understand that, in Mandarin, the p and b sounds have the same value and are interchangeable in words without changing the meaning of the word. Similarly, Hindi or Mandarin speakers reading English written in NAVLIPI script will immediately understand that the p and ph sounds have the same value in English and are interchangeable in words without changing the meaning of the word.
It is important to remember that there are situations where certain phones (sounds) simply don’t exist in certain languages. For example, the p sound simply does not exist in most forms of Arabic, so some Arabic speakers when pronouncing English pay will say bay; and the l sound simply does not exist in standard Japanese, so some Japanese speakers when pronouncing English lay will say ray). As another, odder example, in Mexican Spanish, the x in many proper names (e.g. Ixtapa) which are of Nauhatl (one of the Aztec languages) origin, are pronounced with as an sh sound. Such situations are not related in a direct way with phonemes, and so are beyond the purview of NAVLIPI; so NAVLIPI is not involved in any way in such situations.
Here are some examples of phonemic transcription in NAVLIPI:
The reader may well ask, “why is a phonemic script or conveying phonemic information necessary at all?”!
Although there are many reasons, expounded in other NAVLIPI documents, one of the most simple reason is that that it becomes very difficult to write different languages which have very different phonemes, such as English and Mandarin, or Hindi and Tamil, in a single, universal script. Even the IPA alphabet has no way of conveying such phonemic information.
Generally speaking, if one wants to read a different language in the same, universal script, one needs to understand the unique, phonemic vagaries of that language. Thus, a native English speaker, when reading Mandarin common speech (Putonghua) in a universal script, needs to know that he/she can pronounce p as b and vice versa without any effect. Or a Tamil speaker needs to know, when reading Hindi in the universal script, that he/she needs to be careful to distinguish aspirated (महाप्राण) from unaspirated (अल्पप्राण) sounds.
Other, less important reasons for conveying phonemic information in a script are that being able to garner phonemic information on a language while reading it in a common, universal script greatly helps greatly in learning or comprehending that language. Thus, such a universal, phonemic script can greatly help in language learning in the world.
Just some examples of the manner in which NAVLIPI transcribes phonemic information are given below: